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WRC Croatia: Relentless Neuville fends off Evans to hold narrow lead

World Rally Championship points leader Thierry Neuville emerged from a thrilling head-to-head battle with Toyota’s Elfyn Evans with the Croatia Rally lead heading into the final day.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

The title rivals were locked in a titanic scrap across the day’s eight stages, which saw the lead change hands and the margin between the pair never exceeding five seconds, having started Saturday tied on overall times.

A maximum attack approach, assisted by a beneficial tyre call in unpredictable weather, ultimately resulted in Hyundai driver Neuville ending the day with a 4.9s lead from Evans. The pair picked up 18 and 15 provisional championship points respectively, that can be collected if they finish the rally on Sunday.

Eight-time world champion and part-time Toyota driver Sebastien Ogier kept himself in the victory battle, 11.6s adrift in third, scooping up 13 points. Hyundai’s Ott Tanak held fourth [+1m15.5s] to claim 10 points ahead of M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux [+1m35.4s], who snared a provisional eight points.

Threatening skies again put the focus on tyres for Saturday’s afternoon loop as Toyota clearly expected rain selecting four soft and two wets as the package for its three GR Yaris entries.

Hyundai and M-Sport were more conservative, opting to take hard, soft and wet compound rubber in case the rain didn’t arrive.

Light rain greeted the crews ahead of Stage 13 [Smerovisce-Grdanjci -15.72 km] before the shower became increasingly heavier, which played into Toyota’s hands.

Evans took advantage of the changeable weather and a stage win duly followed as he re-took the overall lead from Neuville in the process by a margin of two seconds. Evans was however unsure if the tyre call would pay off for the remainder of the loop.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Neuville dropped 6.7s to stage winner Evans, who took the stage by a second from team-mate Ogier.

“I pushed very hard and tried to carry on, I knew we were losing time, but we limited the time loss. It’ll be difficult [to bring it back],” said Neuville.

M-Sport’s Fourmaux also bore the brunt of a wrong tyre decision as the Frenchman ceded 15.5s to the lead group.

“I’m not happy. I don’t understand how we can be so bad. We have a lot of data and yet we cannot make a good tyre choice. It’s so disappointing,” said Fourmaux.

Tanak also endured tyre woes revealing that he had a moment due to the lack of grip on the stage.

However, the tide turned in favour of Hyundai and M-Sport after stage 14 [Stojdraga-Gornja Vas 20.77km]. The early runners encountered a damp start to the stage, but the road surface would become drier by the time the leaders tackled the test.

This benefitted the hard tyre-shod Neuville, and despite a late shower that threatened to thwart his run, he responded with an impressive stage win to snatch the lead back from Evans.

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

A committed Neuville stopped the clocks 3.9s faster than Ogier and 4.3s quicker than Evans. The net result was Neuville leaving the stage with a 2.3s lead over Evans.

“When we found out there could be rain at the end, we just went flat out,” he said.

While Neuville’s risk-filled run paid off, team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen was caught out by a tight left resulting in his i20 N understeering into a bank. Luckily, the low-speed impact didn’t cause any damage but on the final stage, he suffered a delaminating tyre.

The weather pendulum continued to swing in Hyundai’s favour as the field welcomed a dry road and no sign of rain for the penultimate stage [Vinski Vrh – Duga Resa - 8.78km].

Once again, the hard tyre shod Neuville prevailed but the Belgian revealed his run to a stage win was “on the edge”.  Neuville pipped Ogier by 1.6s and was a tenth faster than Evans as this relentless scrap for the victory took another twist.

Tanak was the best of the rest, posting the fourth fastest, having conceded that there was nothing to fight for sitting in a relatively comfortable fourth overall.

Neuville completed Saturday in style by winning stage 16 [Pecurkovo Brdo – Mreznicki Novaki – 9.11km] to claim his ninth fastest time, pipping Ogier by 0.5s after a faultless run. The time was enough to extend his overall lead to 4.9s after Evans reached the stage end 0.9s adrift. 

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

In WRC2, Nikolay Gryazin maintained his lead of the second-tier class from Citroen team-mate Yohan Rossel.

Four more stages await the crews on Sunday.

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